Why You Should Use Lens Filters With Your Drone

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If you’ve ever seen someone else’s footage captured with the same drone you own and wondered “how does that look so good?”, chances are they were made with a drone camera filter attached. Here’s why you should use them too.

How does a lens filter work?

A filter is basically a layer of special material in a holder designed to fit your drone’s camera lens. Light passes through the filter material before entering the lens, changing it in some way. Some filters change the amount of light entering the camera and others change the type of light allowed through. Filters can also change the optical properties of your drone camera, such as changing the lens angle or zoom level.

Why use lens filters with a drone?

Hand holding a lens filter to demonstrate the effect of polarization on a beach scene.

Each filter does a different job and is used for certain conditions and desired image results. Filters are used in all types of photography and they basically allow you to extend the capabilities of your camera’s lens, shutter, and sensor beyond their normal range of capabilities. This is especially useful for drones, where most consumer drones don’t have interchangeable cameras and lens modules.

Depending on where you’re traveling, time of day or year, your subject, etc., you’ll need filters to ensure you capture the best photo or video.

What types of filters do drones use?

There are many different filtering options, some of which are common and some which are more left wing. For drone photography and videography, there are three common types of filters you should be aware of:

  • Ultraviolet (UV) filters
  • Neutral density (ND) filters
  • Circular polarizing filters

UV filters reduce the amount of UV light entering your camera, which can create a blurrier image. UV light becomes a bigger problem at higher altitudes and a UV filter can clean up the image in those cases.

ND filters reduce the total amount of light entering your drone’s camera, without altering the image in other ways, such as distorting colors. They are used in still photography to allow for longer exposures, but when it comes to drones they are most popular for video.

When shooting in very bright conditions, you usually need to use a faster shutter speed setting on your camera to avoid overexposing every frame. Unfortunately, higher shutter speeds also result in jerky movements that don’t look cinematic at all. By using the right ND filter, your camera can stick to a slower shutter speed and you can have great cinematic movement and correct exposure.

Circular polarizing filters (CPL) filters out light reflected from horizontal surfaces such as a wet road, lake or snow. It also reduces glare from shiny surfaces such as metal car bodies. Polarizing filters also deepen the blue of the sky and can help you see below the surface of the water, allowing you to see animals and objects from above.

You can also get filters that combine multiple filter types, such as the PolarPro Vivid filter collection for the Mavic 2 Pro. These filters combine UV, ND and polarization filtering in a single element.

Filter warnings

The main downside of attaching a filter to your drone is that if you used the wrong filter or conditions change, you’ll have to land to change your setup.

Someone filming with a handheld camera can quickly change or adjust their filter as needed, but that’s not possible when your camera is half a mile up in the sky. Although you can try to gauge how happy you are with a ground filter, it will take experience and practice to compensate for flying conditions from the ground.

It may be helpful to do your first flight without a filter to get a baseline, then attach whatever filter (or stacked filters) you think you need to improve the image.

What about color grading?

Color grading is adjusting the color and brightness of a photo or video after you save it. This is standard practice and all professional footage is color graded. Many drones can take “raw” photos or film footage that has a flat color profile so it can be categorized later.

You may think you can do what a filter does by simply grading the footage after the fact, but color grading can’t compensate for overexposure or incorrect shutter speeds. The necessary information cannot be retrieved from the file because the camera was unable to capture it in the first place.

If you are even semi-serious about drone photography or videography, you should invest in a filter kit for your drone model. It’s the most efficient way to get those perfectly exposed cinematic shots.

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